Tag Archives: Hebrews

Living in Tents

I am working on an extended research project on what it means for the church to be a people of strangers and foreigners, exiles, sojourners in a foreign land. As part of my research I came across an interesting thought: an exile/sojourner/foreigner is in an awkward state. They are “living in tents” as the writer of Hebrews might say. They are a people without a home. They may not be homeless (a tent is a sort of a home) but they are not yet at “home” in the fullest psychological sense.

Sojourners and exiles are related but distinct people groups. A sojourner is on a journey, but it is journey they set out on freely. Abraham is the quintessential sojourner. An exile is someone who has been banished. Daniel was an exile. Moses, when he realized that his killing of the Egyptian had become public knowledge, became an exile. But sojourners and exiles share a common trait – they are not at home.

This place away from home can be quite emotionally and psychologically taxing. The early Christians certainly understood this. They were an extreme minority within their culture and faced financial, social, familial, religious, and political pressure. A Christian community on this journey faces a choice – do they move forward on the journey or go back? To return to the familiar is sometimes the path of least resistance, even for the exile.

The writer of Hebrews addresses the question, urging his readers again and again to move forward, to press toward the goal, and to resist the urge to return to the familiar.

The preacher’s first warning is to those who are in danger of “drifting” away from the faith, that is, drift back to unbelief, pulled along by those subtle pressures of life that work in resistance to the gospel (Heb 2:1-4).

The preacher’s second warning is to heed the example of the Israelites. They had reached the edge of the Promised Land. They had reached the end of their journey. Yet when they saw the “giants” of the land they were to enter turned back in unbelief and faced the judgment of God. The preacher urges his people forward: “The promise of entering rest still stands, let us be careful that none of us have fallen short of it” (Heb 4:1) and again “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Heb 4:11).

The preacher’s third warning once again centers on the theme of “falling away” (Heb 6:6). This time, instead of exhorting his people to press onward, he encourages them to “imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what is promised” (Heb 6:12). He provides plenty of examples of pressing on towards the goal in chapter 11.

The preacher’s fourth warning is a call to persevere. The church is called to “draw near,” “hold unswervingly to the hope,” and “spur one another one” all in light of the final Day (Heb 10:22-25). That is, the commands to persevere and commands given in hope of the future reality of the land we are moving toward. This hope is a “rich reward” for those who persevere (Heb 10:35).

The preacher uses the “hall of faith” to put an even finer point on the matter:

Reflecting on Abraham, who had left all of what was familiar in Haran, the preacher says, “People who say such things show they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God for he has prepared a city for them.” Abraham the sojourner knew returning to the home he had left was impossible. His lack of opportunity was not a logistical problem. He had no opportunity to return because his eyes were so focused on the “city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Abraham was not the only one with his eyes to the future. The preacher describes Moses in precisely the same way. “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking forward to his reward” (Heb 11:26). The same is true for all the saints in Hebrews 11. Their faith was characterized by a “confidence in what we hope for” (Heb 11:1). Even those who accepted martyrdom did so because they looked forward to a “better resurrection” (Heb 11:35).

At the finale of this section the preacher points his readers to Jesus, the quintessential sojourner. We are called to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” all as we run the race. We are not blazing a new path, but one that has been run many more times. It has been run by our very Savior. He Himself was a stranger on earth. He was rejected. He experienced shame. He endured the cross. He was glorified. He now sits at the right hand of the throne of God.

The church has always been a colony of foreigners in a foreign land, though at various times and places it has been very easy for the church to feel at home in the structures, systems, and culture of our world. I believe we are awakening to the reality of our true position. As we do we will face the same temptation that every other sojourner and exile faces, the temptation to lose our distinct reality and drift away from those offensive elements of our faith, or drift away from the faith entirely. I believe the writer of Hebrews would urge us forward. “At least in Egypt we won’t starve or be murdered by giants” the Israelites said. True, but we also won’t receive the fullness of the promise of God.

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The Fear that Takes Away Fear

This upcoming Sunday I’ll be preaching out of Hebrews 11:23-28 and the story of Moses. The story of Moses interpreted through the lens of Hebrews is fascinating because in Exodus Moses is characterized by fear (2:14; 4:13) but in Hebrews he is commended for his courage (11:27). I’m probably like young, scared Moses, but his story tells me that there’s hope I might become courageous yet.

Moses overcame his fear when he “regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt” and when he “saw him who is invisible.” But the defining moment of Israel’s salvation, the Passover, is a story of fear. Those who were saved were saved because they feared and those who were destroyed were destroyed because they didn’t. The issue wasn’t the presence or absence of fear but with where that fear was placed.

Pharaoh had good reason to fear God. He witnessed plague after plague and yet Moses could still say to him in the midst of it “I know that you and your officials still do not fear the LORD God” (9:31). Despite having every reason to fear God they failed to do so.

By contrast when the Israelites heard the command to participate in the Passover meal and apply the blood to the doorposts they obeyed. They feared God and obeyed and, in doing so, they removed any reason to be afraid. They knew that this was the final stage of their deliverance from slavery. No longer would they fear the chains of oppression, abuse, and violence. They also knew that by obeying God by celebrating Passover, they did not have to fear the destroying angel.

The fear of the Lord is the recognition of his awesome and terrible power. Jesus tells us in Luke 12 “do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” God has the authority to throw us into hell and we are wise to fear that awesome authority. But when our fear is well placed, and we obey him by trusting his salvation, all fear is removed.

In the very same passage as the one quoted above Jesus goes on to tell us of God’s particular care. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

No doubt with some reference to the Exodus the writer of Hebrews declares “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). Likewise, John tells us “there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

Those who fear God have nothing left to fear. We need not fear what man can do – God is sovereign. We need not fear disgrace – the affirmation of Christ is of greater value. We need not fear any human authority – there is a higher one still. We need not fear death – we have a sure reward. We need not fear the judgment – Jesus has taken it for us. Ironically, the fear of the Lord, when combined with obedience and trust, leads to peace, courage, and freedom.

What does it mean to live as a foreigner?

Hebrews 11 says that Abraham lived “like a stranger in a foreign country” even while living in the Promised Land. He lived as an alien and a stranger, not interested in returning to his homeland and “longing for a better country.” He was searching for a “city with foundations, who architect and builder is God.”

Hebrews 11 is given for us to emulate the faith of the heroes mentioned within. So how do we emulate this aspect of Abraham’s faith? How do we live as foreigners and strangers in this world?

What it doesn’t mean

First, this isn’t a passage that teaches platonic dualism. Some might read the passage to mean that Abraham was a stranger in the physical world who was longing for a spiritual home. Being a foreigner in this sense means that our “true home” can only be found when we escape from our bodies and from our physical world.

But a “spiritual” reality isn’t the hope in Hebrews. The hope of Hebrews is in “a better resurrection” (11:35) and for an enduring and eternal city. Our hope is not simply in what happens when we die, but in what happens when Christ returns “to bring salvation to all who are waiting for him” (9:28), which includes a new heaven and a new earth.

Christians aren’t strangers on earth because of our physicality. We’re strangers because of our faith. Abraham’s faith set him apart. It made him a foreigner on earth and a citizen of heaven.

Second, this passage isn’t telling us to be grumpy or to seek “escape.” Abraham may have been longing for a country of his own, but he wasn’t seeking escape from the place God had placed him. His attitude must have been similar to that of Paul who stated, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). He longed to be at home with Jesus, but he was by no means seeking to escape from this world.

Once we realize we’re foreigners and aliens because of our faith, it can be tempting to throw up our hands and say, “Just get me out of here God.” But that’s not the attitude we’re called to. We’re called to contentment, peace, and joy. We’re called to live life with a mission. This present age may not be our ultimate home, but it is the home God has called us to cultivate and enjoy.

What does it mean?

If this passage isn’t about ontological dualism and it isn’t about pessimistic escapism, what is it about?

First, to re-iterate, Abraham was a foreigner because of his faith, which in Hebrews also means his obedience. Living as a stranger means living out an ethical reality. 1 John 2:15-17 clears things up for us a bit:

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

We live as strangers when we do not “love the world.” And, in this case, “the world” refers to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” To be a stranger in this world means to reject the sin that this world offers.

Matthew 13:22 is helpful as well:

The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.

We live as strangers when we are not caught up in the “worries of this life the deceitfulness of wealth.” We live as strangers when we realize that this life is not all there is, that our wealth and worries are temporary realities, and that we have something greater to look forward to.

A new perspective and a new identity

Living like a stranger means living with a new perspective and identity. The new perspective is an eternal perspective – the realization that anything that is offered to us in this age is as temporary as a tent (11:9) but that in the age to come we will inherit an enduring city.

The new identity is a switch in citizenship. You may not feel at home in this world. Maybe you’ve felt like you’ve lost a bit of your citizenship. You have. But take heart. Those who embrace their new identities as foreigners and strangers on earth receive the favor of God. “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (11:16b).

What is the meaning of the “presence of God?”

One of my most popular blog posts, in terms of generating search results, is the post “Should we treat church buildings as holy ground?” wherein I address the title question. My answer hangs on the meaning of the presence of God. But what does “the presence of God” really refer to anyway?

Yesterday morning I was reading 1 Kings 8 and I discovered that Solomon both asks and addresses that question in his prayer of dedication of the temple.

Right after the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the temple the Bible says “the cloud filled the LORD” causing Solomon to declare “the LORD has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud; I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for your to dwell forever” (1 Kings 8:10-13).

Solomon built the temple to be the “dwelling place” of God.

But Solomon understood the apparent contradiction here. How could one building provide a suitable dwelling place for the Creator of the universe? He asks in his prayer: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less the temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:17) God’s presence is not something contained in space, even the whole of created space, but he definitely seen it as something real.

He answers how he understands the presence of God in the next verse. “Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day … so that you will hear the prayer of your servant.” (8:28, 29) For Solomon, God’s presence is made known when He answers the prayer of his people. But what is most instructive, or what was most surprising to me, was the specific answer to prayer Solomon was looking for. “Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.” (8:30)

I would have expected Solomon’s prayer to read the more generic “and when you hear, answer.” But no, Solomon knew what he and the people needed most when it came to God’s presence – his mercy.

Note how this theme is expanded in the rest of the prayer:

  •          When your people have been defeated… hear and forgive and bring them back to the land. (33-34)
  •          When there is no rain because the people sinned… hear from heaven and forgive. Teach them the right way to live. (35-36)
  •          When a famine or plague comes to the land… Forgive and act; deal with each man according to all he does. (37-40)
  •          When the people sin and are taken captive… hear their prayer and forgive your people; forgive all offenses they have committed against you. (46-51)

There are a few three sections of this prayer where the pattern doesn’t hold.

  •          When a man wrongs his neighbor… Judge between your servants, condemning the guilty and vindicating the innocent. (31-32)
  •          When a foreigner comes and prays… hear his prayer from heaven so that all people may know your name. (41-43)
  •          When your people go to war… uphold their cause. (44-45)

Still, forgiveness is a major theme of Solomon’s prayer. God’s presence, or at least the evidence of God’s presence, is seen in the mercy He shows his people.

This squares with Hebrews 4:16, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mart and find grace to help us in our team of need” and Hebrews 10:22, “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” Again, both the way into God’s presence, and the benefit of it, is marked by the mercy of God.

We often think of God’s presence in terms of mysticism or ecstatic religious experience. I think that an awareness of the real presence of God in our midst should lead us to what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections” but that, objectively, the primary means and benefit of the presence of God is none other than his mercy and grace.

Why Church?

Church attendance does not save you. It doesn’t earn you any favor with God. You can find better preaching and worship music on the radio or on the Internet. So why bother with church? Hey, you can just as easily eat coffee and cookies at home.

The book of Hebrews answers this in two broad ways:

First, a church needs you: The commands in Hebrews concerning “gathering together” are active/participatory rather than passive/consumerist. The pastor says in 3:13 “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that you may not be hardened by sins deceitfulness.” Again, in 10:24 he says, “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” And in 10:25 he gives the command, “let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” When this is combined with the uniqueness of spiritual giftedness, we can see each individual within the church has a unique ability to encourage others toward love and good deeds. Somewhere, a local church needs your abilities and encouragement.

Second, you need a church: The early Christians were besieged by persecution (as are many Christians around the world.) For them, participation with a local church was dangerous. Gathering together made them vulnerable to attack. Indeed, some Christians were “publicly exposed to insult,” sent to prison, and robbed of property (10:32-34). This produced a strong incentive for the Christians to either abandon the faith all together, or at least abandon others who did.

The writer of Hebrews, however, wanted something more for them than mere safety. The promise for those who persevered by the grace of God was worth for more than what they would give up. It was not a loss to give up earthly possessions in order to gain eternal ones (10:34). Indeed, it was even worthwhile to give up one’s life, for the sake of a better resurrection (11:35).

To be able to stand in the face of this persecution the pastor saw only one sufficient resource – the grace you can receive in the very presence of God. Only Jesus is able to draw us into the presence of the holy God. In approaching the Holy of Holies himself, through his perfect, once-for-all sacrifice, he saves us completely. Then he beckons us to follow him. We are told to “approach the throne of grace” with confidence” and “draw near to God with a sincere heart.” But what does this actually mean? There may be several ways to do this, but at least one thing the pastor had in mind was the act of corporate worship – the people of God coming together to praise God.

It is clear the pastor believed that if the people of God gathered together for worship and mutual encouragement they would avoid the fate of the wilderness generation that experienced the judgment of God, something he explicitly states in 3:13 saying “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that you may not be hardened by sins deceitfulness.” I’m not sure if you noticed, but it’s getting hostile out there and we need one another in order to cultivate our faith.

Find a community of faith where you can “set your hand to the plow” and get to work. That church needs you, and you need that church.

Selective Hearing

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time at my friend C’s house. His dad had some seriously selective hearing. If we were in the same room as him we had to practically shout to be heard. But, when I would spend the night we would often stay up late watching TV. The TV was in the living room downstairs and C’s dad slept upstairs. We would turn the TV down as low as possible and sit really close. Even then, it seemed, C’s dad would come down stairs and tell us the sound of the TV was disturbing his sleep. I think we eventually resorted to using those wireless TV headphones, sharing a single pair, straining to hear the improv show In Living Color.

I realized recently, though, that sometimes I get a bad case of spiritual selective hearing. I find myself wondering – God, why can’t I hear you? What are you trying to say? More often than not I discover later that God has been speaking, he just hasn’t been saying the things I want him to say. My autonomous self only wants to hear those things which are particularly comforting to me or puff me up. I don’t want to hear the voice of rebuke, of judgment, of warning, or of self-denial. So I close my ears and then blame God for being silent. This is nothing less than rebellion.

This Sunday I’m preaching on Hebrews 10:19-39. It’s a passage not only do I feel uncomfortable hearing, it’s one I feel uncomfortable speaking. It’s a word of warning. It’s a strong word of warning. Here’s the particularly jarring passage:

26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  – Hebrews 10:26-31 (NIV)

It’s got everything that flies in the face of our prevailing culture – a God who judges, hell, the exclusivity of Christ. This isn’t a “comfortable” Christianity. Yet, it’s the Word of God. I can’t tell God he’s being silent and yet fail to listen to what I don’t want him to be saying.

Lord, help me both have open ears, and an open mouth, this Sunday.

Priests and Sacrifices: Attempting to Apply Hebrews Today

I just updated a folder name on my computer. It was “Sermons – Hebrews 2012-2013” and it is now “Sermons – Hebrews 2012-2014”. That’s right, I’m entering my third year of teaching through the book of Hebrews. Later in January I’ll be teaching on Hebrews 10:1-18.

One of the biggest challenges of teaching Hebrews is answering the question: “How does this apply to the modern reader?” The original readers of Hebrews faced some challenges that are foreign to us. They faced ever-increasing persecution and the strong temptation to return to the Jewish sacrificial system. They had to be convinced that the Old Covenant system of sacrifices and priests was now obsolete and that sticking with Jesus, despite potential loss of property and life, was both possible and worth it.

While Christians certainly face persecution today in other parts of the world, the persecution we face in America (i.e., the people to whom I am speaking) face at worst peer pressure. Certainly there are signs that persecution is increasing in America but it has certainly not reached the level that the early church faced. Also, I don’t know of anyone in my church that needs to be convinced that the Jewish sacrificial system is now obsolete. The author of Hebrews goes through pains to show the inadequacy of the sacrificial system and I feel myself saying, well, “duh!”

Much of Hebrews is quite easily and obviously applicable but it’s on this particular point that I have, at times, struggled to draw a connection to the challenges of modernity and those who attend Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship.

I want to share a little of how I have attempted to draw those connections as I’ve preached through Hebrews.

First, I observed that while it is true that no one is tempted to return to the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant, we still have a works-based/sacrificial system present in what I will call “Modern Moralism.” By “modern moralism” I mean the belief set that has as its creed:

1)      God is good.

2)      I do bad things sometimes – but they’re not that bad.

3)      If I’m really bad God will reject me.

4)      I can do good things to cancel out the bad things I’ve done – and then I’m OK again.

I think many people, even many self-described Christians operate under this set of beliefs. I’m sure that I do sometimes. This set of beliefs can also sometimes be called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Second, I observed that there is some continuity and discontinuity between Modern Moralism and the Old Covenant system.

In terms of discontinuity: The Old Covenant is superior to Modern Moralism because the Old Covenant was given through special revelation to God’s particular people. It didn’t just describe good and bad in general, but defined what they were. It gave us the Ten Commandments and the Shema. Most importantly, it was specifically defined to point us to Christ. The Old Covenant was an objectively good thing – a gift from God. On the other hand, while Moralism recognizes some of the same truths of the Old Covenant, its best solutions are just shots in the dark. It’s a response to general revelation so its attempts at answers are extremely vague, self-focused, and culturally bound.

The other biggest differences between Moralism and Old Covenant are that the Moralism doesn’t have a system of priests and Moralism doesn’t have a system of sacrifices. Or does it?

Priests: What was the goal of the priests in the Old Covenant? To provide a sanctioned mediator between God and man. Since Modern Moralism doesn’t view are sins as being particularly bad, and because we are such an egalitarian society today, we’ve “removed the middle man” believing we can go to God directly. We’ve become our own priests. The problem is that the same things that made the priests of the Old Covenant ultimately ineffective – they were sinful and mortal – makes us ineffective as priests as well.

Sacrifices: What was the goal of the sacrificial system? To provide for the removal of guilt. We are “enlightened” enough to know that animal sacrifices don’t take away sin but we still look for ways to cancel out our guilt apart from Jesus. Moralism makes piety (church attendance, tithing, reading the Bible) or just plain old human kindnesses (helping little old ladies cross the street), a means to atone for sin. We figure if I did something bad on Tuesday we can “make up for it” on Wednesday. Who knows, maybe we just need to feel really bad for what we did. Once again, though, Moralism simply replaces one ineffective way of removing guilt with another.

In terms of continuity: The essential problem with both Old Covenant thinking and Modern Moralism is this: Human effort is enough to make me right with God. In the Old Covenant human effort means obeying the Mosaic Law and offering periodic sacrifices. In Moralism, human effort means obeying some vague cultural “rules” and doing good deeds to outweigh the bad.

Third, I observed that the benefit of both the Old Covenant and Modern Moralism is that, when their insufficiency is recognized, they can both point us to Jesus. On this point the Old Covenant is once again superior, since it provides the pattern of priest and sacrifice fulfilled ultimately in Jesus. However, Moralism has on its side the recognition that God is good and sin needs to be dealt with, it just provides an powerless solution.

Fourth, I made this chart:

Here is my attempt to synthesize the similarities and differences between the Old Covenant and Modern Moralism. It’s also my attempt to show the ultimate solution to the problem of sin made available in the life, death, and resurrection in Jesus.

Category Old Covenant Modern Moralism New Covenant – Fulfilled in   Jesus
Revelatory source Special revelation given through Moses General revelation (Romans 1:18-20) Special revelation given through Jesus
Recognized problem Sin leads to judgment Sin leads to judgment Sin leads to judgment
Attempted solution Don’t break the law

Offer sin offerings

Don’t be “bad”

Do “good deeds” to cancel out the bad

Jesus did not sin

Jesus offered perfect sacrifice

Don’t break the law Follow law of Moses Don’t break cultural values/own conscience Jesus did not sin
Offer sin offerings Animal sacrifice through priests Piety (church attendance, tithing, Bible reading)

Human kindness

Jesus was perfect sacrifice
High priest External:

Sinful/Weak/Mortal

Self:

Sinful/Weak/Mortal

Jesus:

Perfected/Eternal

How to “keep the faith” Try hard not to break the laws, offer regular sacrifices Try hard to “be good” and try to make up for it when you fail Look to Jesus. Go to him to receive mercy (forgiveness) and strength.
Lies/Truth in the solution Mistaken belief that:

1)      I   can do it!

2)      Animal   sacrifices take away sin

3)      The   priest can take care of my sin

Mistaken belief that:

1)      My   sins aren’t so bad.

2)      My   good works can even the scales of my sin

3)      I   can go to God on my own

Truth

1)      I   can’t do it – but Jesus did

2)      His   sacrifice is necessary and sufficient

3)      Jesus   is the perfect mediator